Following a deal between German political leaders and museum specialists on Thursday, 29 April 2021, the country intends to return the ‘Benin Bronzes’ back to its home country of Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes were part of artefacts taken as booty by British troops during an 1897 military expedition in what is now modern-day Nigeria. The looted artefacts were sculptures and metallic plaques from the 16th and 18th centuries, which served to decoration the Kingdom of Benin’s royal palace and has been widely regarded as some of the most priceless pieces of African art.
These Nigerian artefacts can be found all around museums in Europe. A detailed blueprint for how the artefacts is going to be returned back to Nigeria will be chalked out over the next couple of months, all of the artefacts to be inventoried by 15 June 2021 and a subsequent meeting on 29 June 2021. Museum cooperation with Africa is prominent on Germany’s agenda.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described Thursday’s consensus as, “a turning point in our approach to colonial history.” He went on to say, “We have been working intensively for months to create the framework conditions for this and have put the issue of museum cooperation with Africa on the political agenda and sought dialogue with our Nigerian partners, the architect and the initiators of the Benin Museum.”
“From archaeological cooperation to the training of museum managers and assistance with cultural infrastructure, we have put together a package and are continuing to work on it with our Nigerian partners,” added the German Foreign Minister. Monika Gruetters, Germany’s Culture Minister said, “We want to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen during colonization.”
While Hermann Parzinger of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation stated that the aim is to facilitate the return the initial batch of artifacts by 2022. Further deliberations are planned with the group’s Nigerian counterparts to make sure there are “substantial returns and future cooperation.” These meetings would also discuss which of the items may be permitted to remain on display in German museums.
Several German museums house these historical bronze relics from the Benin Kingdom, with the Berlin Ethnological Museum alone housing an estimated 530 artefacts from the kingdom, these also include around 440 Benin bronzes. Around 180 of the Benin bronzes are scheduled to be displayed in Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, a new museum complex which opened in the December of 2020.
What are the Benin Bronzes?
The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. Collectively, the objects form the best-known examples of Benin art, created from the 13th century onwards by the Edo people, which also included other sculptures in brass or bronze, including some famous portrait heads and smaller pieces.
Most of the plaques and other objects were looted by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897 as imperial control was being consolidated in Southern Nigeria. Two hundred pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest found their way to other European museums. A large number are held by the British Museum with other notable collections in Germany and the United States. The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art. Initially, it appeared incredible to the discoverers that people “supposedly so primitive and savage” were responsible for such highly developed objects.
Origins & theft
According to the British Museum, “The Benin Bronzes come from Benin City, the historic capital of the Kingdom of Benin, a major city state in West Africa from the medieval period. Benin became part of the British Empire from 1897 to 1960 and is now within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Today the modern city of Benin (in Edo State) is the home of the current ruler of the Kingdom of Benin, His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II.
“Many of the rituals and ceremonies associated with the historic Kingdom of Benin continue to be performed today. By the end of the 19th century, the Nigerian coast and its trade were largely dominated by the British. It is in the context of this emerging colonial power that the Benin Bronzes came to the British Museum.”
The British museum further documents, “During the second half of the 19th century, the balance of power between West African kingdoms like Benin and the European nations they traded with shifted massively towards European control. In the late 19th century, industrialised European nations accompanied by new military technologies began to exert greater power across the African continent. This political and commercial movement developed into the territorial land-grab known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
“A further fundamental context that needs to be recognised for fully understanding this period of West African history is the transatlantic slave trade. This vast traffic in humans supplied labour to the colonies and plantations in the Americas, including those of Britain. While by the late 19th century this trade had been largely abolished, its increasing scale and barbarity in the preceding centuries had led to a massive impact on West African societies.
“The desire to further extend British power and influence in the region ultimately led to a clash with the Kingdom of Benin. The gradual expansion by the British into territory neighbouring the kingdom and an increasing reluctance to accept Benin’s trading conditions created an atmosphere of distrust and animosity.
“In January 1897, an allegedly peaceful but clearly provocative British trade mission was attacked on its way to Benin City, leading to the deaths of 230 of the mission’s African carriers and seven British delegates. This incident triggered the launch of a large-scale retaliatory military expedition by the British against the Kingdom of Benin. Benin City was overrun and occupied by British forces in February 1897.
“Benin suffered a bloody and devastating occupation. No exact figure can be given for the number of Benin’s population who were killed in the conquest of the city. However, it is clear that there were many casualties during the sustained fighting. The occupation of Benin City saw widespread destruction and pillage by British forces. Along with other monuments and palaces, the Royal Palace was burned and destroyed. Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were taken to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’ or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank.
“This included a range of objects removed from shrines, among which were ceremonial brass heads of former Oba’s and their associated ivory tusks. This also included more than 900 brass plaques, dating largely to the 16–17th century, found in a storage room within the palace.
“Having previously decorated the palace walls, these plaques were key historic records for the Benin Court and kingdom, enabling illustration of historic practices and traditions. Following the occupation, the Oba was later captured and sent into exile, while a number of Benin chiefs were executed. Justified as legitimate military action against a ‘barbarous’ kingdom, this brutal, violent colonial episode effectively marked the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin.
“In the autumn of 1897, the British Museum displayed 304 Benin plaques on loan from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and subsequently petitioned successfully to receive 203 of these as a donation. The majority of the remaining plaques were sold to UK and German museums and to private dealers, while a few were retained by the Foreign Office. Other early collections were purchased or donated by members of the Benin expedition.
“The collection only grew to its current size following the acquisition of major private collections, such as that of Harry Beasley in 1944, William Oldman in 1949 and Sir Henry Wellcome in 1954. In 1950 and 1951 the Museum sold, exchanged, or donated some of the Benin plaques to the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria (25 in number) and the government of the Gold Coast (1).
“These were subsequently placed within newly established West African museums. At the time these objects were seen as ‘duplicates’ of other objects retained in the collection, something which later research has shown to be incorrect. A further number of such plaques (12) were sold to or exchanged with private dealers and collectors between 1950 and 1972.”
Other European nations too intend to shed Colonial past
Several former colonial powers are also contemplating the return of these artifacts as they are visible reminders of their ‘bloody’ colonial pasts. The University of Aberdeen in Scotland has already agreed to return a Benin Bronze sculpture to Nigeria last month; The varsity stated that it was acquired by British troops under “reprehensible circumstances.” This decision by the university has placed monumental pressure upon the British Museum, among other such establishments to deliberate upon returning the pillaged artifacts. According to reports, The British Museum has contemplated loaning its share of the Benin Bronzes back to its home country.
Nigeria intends to construct a museum in the city of Benin to house the looted artefacts after they are returned. This is touted to be a €3.4 million scheme in which the British museum will also participate. France too approved the restitution of 26 items from the Kingdom of Benin. This announcement was made last year.
(Image – Alexandra Antohin. The Juugad Project)